Posts Tagged ‘Somalia’

A new review essay for my home institution RUSI’s own RUSI Journal. It covers a series of books written by three different individuals who managed to penetrate different parts of al Qaeda on behalf of security forces, and lived to tell their tales. The books are written with journalists and are all a good read – for different reasons in each case. I particularly enjoyed the pacey nature of Morten Storm’s account which ducks and weaves around al Qaeda globally, as well as the detailed and deeply personal look at some of the history around Finsbury Park Mosque that I had covered in my book in Reda Hassaine’s (that one would have been useful while I was working on the book I  should add, in fact Morten Storm’s as well given the interesting revelations about some historical cases like Hassan Tabbakh), while Mubin Shaikh’s is a very personal and emotional read. The point of the review was both to try to explore the particular cases and stories, but also more generally the phenomenon of these men who are drawn to serve in this dangerous role. The article is behind a paywall, but can be accessed here, and I have pasted the first few paragraphs below. If you cannot access it, do get in touch and I can see what I might do to help. This aside, been doing bits of talking to the media, but been travelling a lot too. So far, can only find some comments I made to Voice of America on the recent Tunisia attacks and the New Scientist on online radicalisation.

Radicalism and Terrorism

Raffaello Pantucci reviews

Agent Storm: My Life Inside al-Qaeda
By Morten Storm with Tim Lister and Paul Cruickshank

and

Abu Hamza: Guilty; The Fight Against Radical Islam
By Réda Hassaïne and Kurt Barling

and

Undercover Jihadi: Inside the Toronto 18 – Al Qaeda Inspired, Homegrown Terrorism in the West
By Anne Speckhard and Mubin Shaikh

Paranoia, fantasy, omniscience and glory are a combustible mix of emotions. Stoked by handlers keen to advance their own goals, this list provides a snapshot insight into the mindset driving individuals who choose to become undercover agents. Drawn into action through disaffection, a sense of need to improve the world around them or through manipulation by others, they have repeatedly played key roles in the War on Terror. At the heart of almost every disrupted plot is an undercover agent. The three books under review tell a clutch of these tales, exposing the seamy side of the intelligence war against Al-Qa’ida.
The agents at the heart of these tales all became undercover agents through different routes and at different times, though the enemy remains, broadly speaking, the same throughout. Morten Storm (an agent for Danish, British and American intelligence) and Mubin Shaikh (an agent for Canadian authorities) were drawn towards Al-Qa’idist ideology in Europe and Canada respectively in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This marked the beginning of their struggle to counter Al-Qa’ida and its offshoots from within. For Morten Storm this was the beginning of a globetrotting life focused on Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Shabaab and their European contacts, while for Mubin Shaikh it was the entry point into an immersion into Canada’s radicalised community. In contrast, Réda Hassaïne (who worked for Algerian, French and British services) was coerced into the world of espionage and counter-terrorism by a manipulative and brutal Algerian state that saw the young journalist and sometime political activist as a useful tool to be used and disposed of at will. All three had begun with little intention of becoming agents, but after being drawn into radical milieus, found themselves being targeted by security agencies.
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A new piece for my institutional home RUSI, looking at something I have been wondering about for a while, which is whether there is anything to be learned from the fact that the flow of foreign fighters between the two places seems to be the same stream. It is something worth a deeper study than this, but look forward to hearing people’s reactions to this stab at the topic.

From Al-Shabaab to Daesh

RUSI Analysis, 23 Jun 2015

By Raffaello Pantucci, Director of International Security Studies

Following the announcement of British deaths in Iraq and Somalia, it has become clear that foreign fighters are attracted to various battlefields. However, there has been a noticeable shift away from Somalia to Syria/Iraq in travel patterns from the UK. Understanding why and how this has taken place might offer some ideas for how to stifle some of the attraction of Syria and Iraq.

ISIS convoy

Thomas Evans’s death fighting against Kenyan forces in Lamu the same weekend that it was revealed that Talha Asmal was involved in a suicide bombing in Iraq reminds us once again that Syria/Iraq is not the only battlefield drawing British foreign fighters. There has always been a curious connection between the Somali and Levantine battlefields, with both conflicts proving able to project a global narrative that appealed to excitable young Britons. However, over time, Somalia’s attraction has shrunk while Syria and Iraq’s has grown: it is therefore an interesting question to try to understand this shift better to see if there are policy lessons that can be learned to counter Daesh’s current draw.

Al-Shabaab’s draw

Emerging from the ashes of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) Al-Shabaab was an organization that had a strong link to the Al Qa’ida cell operating in East Africa (AQEA). Led by prominent jihadists Saleh Ali Nabhan Saleh and Fazul Mohammed, the AQEA cell was a key draw and conduit for Western fighters going to the Horn of Africa. Amongst those who went was Bilal el Berjawi, a Lebanese West Londoner who, alongside his close childhood friend Mohammed Sakr, ended up fighting alongside the group before both were killed in drone strikes. They were both were young men brought up in West London and excited by the narratives of global struggle and jihad that had most prominently taken root in East Africa in the mid-to-late 2000s. Al-Shabaab had managed to show itself as a key point in the global struggle championed by Al- Qa’ida and, as Afghanistan/Pakistan became harder to travel to, Somalia offered itself as an alternative location with a strong link to Al-Qa’ida core. At the same time, the popular radical preacher Anwar al Awlaki championed Al-Shabaab’s fight from his base in Yemen, amplifying its attraction to the young international warriors.

And for a brief while, Somalia was the big draw to excitable young men and women seeking the glories of jihad in foreign fields. The group would release videos with good production values venerating their dead or re-playing their battles using actors and graphics reminiscent of Hollywood productions. They were even active online (with some who still are now), with their warriors taking to Twitter to communicate with the world and spread ideas, videos and information. All of which is very reminiscent of what ISIS and the battlefield in Syria and Iraq are currently producing.

Shifting networks

It is therefore not that surprising that over time it was observable that the networks sending people to Somalia started to show up in the background stories of those going to fight in Syria. Repeated videos and narratives have emerged in which tales tell of people finding Somalia too difficult and instead turning to Syria. Mohammed Emwazi is the most prominent example of this, who first tried to go to East Africa, but instead ended up in Syria after getting turned back. Others include dead West Londoners like Mohammed el Araj or Choukri Ellekhfi, who came from the same networks that had produced Bilal el Berjawi and Mohammed Sakr. Up in North London, a group that included TPIM absconders Ibrahim Magag and Mohammed Ali Mohammed started off sending people to Somalia and Afghanistan, to more recently helping people go fight in Syria. On the continent of Europe, a network sending people from Belgium to Somalia also ended up re-directing fighters to Syria. In many ways, Thomas Evans’ death is a left over from this earlier time when Somalia was the main conflict and he seems to have simply been one of the few Brits still left fighting out there, as the fight in the Levant slowly became the biggest draw for those seeking jihadi battlefields.

Lessons Learned?

The key policy question here is why did Somalia start to lose its appeal? And are there lessons that can be learned from that experience that might help with Daesh and the appeal of Syria and Iraq? In this light, four aspects are worth considering.

First, sometime in 2011, Al-Shabaab started to undergo internal ructions. Different factions vied for control, leading to others getting killed off. There was widespread belief that Bilal el Berjawi’s death, for example, was the product of these internal tensions, and other prominent foreigners were believed to have been felled in similar ways. The result was to scare some foreign fighters off as they saw prominent contacts getting killed and Al Shabaab turning it on itself.

Second, the conflict in Somalia was always a difficult one to get to. Direct flights to Somalia are hard to get, and even getting to neighbouring countries does not make it easy to get to Shabaab’s camps. Over time, this became harder as regional security forces focused ever more on foreigners travelling to neighboring countries with the intention of trying to get into Somalia.

Third, over time, it became increasingly obvious that Al-Shabaab was losing territory and land. No longer able to project an image of success and ruling territory, the narrative around the conflict instead became of internal struggles, a group on the run and headlines about strikes taking out key leaders.

Fourth, the conflict in Syria took off in late 2011 and soon after that became the brightest light on the jihadi map. Over time, this slowly sucked all the air out of other fields and when taken in conjunction with the previous points, made Syria overall far more attractive than what was going on in Somalia.

The lessons learned are blunt. An unstable conflict in which groups are under substantial external pressure is one that is less attractive to the foreign warriors. Difficulty in getting to the field, a fractured leadership and a narrative of failure is important in reducing the groups’ appeal. Media output – which Al-Shabaab continues to produce with high production values, but no longer attracts attention – is not the key factor. This is important to consider in the sometimes excessive focus on online activity as the key aspect of Daesh that needs countering. In fact, more traditional responses of making life difficult for groups to operate is in fact key in stemming growth. Daesh needs to be seen to be losing and fracturing on the ground before it loses its appeal to the foreign warriors drawn to fight alongside it.

 

New piece for RUSI about a curious and unconsidered problem emanating from the current chaos in Syria. Emerges from conversations with Jenni around the office about how Polio has started showing up in and around the conflict, as well as in other parts of the world where violent insurgent/terrorist networks operate. Maybe more on this topic coming. In the meantime, I did a few interviews around events in Xinjiang for the Associated Press, Shanghai’s CICA meeting (and adjacent China-Russia gas deal) with the Economist, Agence France Presse, and the South China Morning Post.

Polio and the Syrian Crisis: The Accidental Bioterrorist
RUSI Analysis, 21 May 2014

By Jennifer Cole, Senior Research Fellow, Resilience & Emergency Management; Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

The World Health Organization’s recent declaration of a public-health emergency due to the re-emergence of polio in countries including Syria and Somalia highlights the nexus between insecurity, violent Islamist groups and the spread of deadly diseases.

Polio vaccine in Djibouti US Department of Defense photo

The continual use of chemical weapons in Syria has shocked the world. It has also reopened speculation around the possible use of biological weapons. In January 2014, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper suggested in a statement to the US Senate Intelligence Committee that the Assad regime is capable of producing lethal agents, though it may not yet have an effective delivery mechanism.

But the potential use of such weapons is not the most pressing biological threat emanating from Syria. Earlier this month, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHIEC)[1] as a result of an unintentional bio-crisis: the re-emergence of polio, a deadly killer which was once almost eradicated. Over the last twelve months, twenty-five cases of polio have been confirmed in Syria, putting neighbouring Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey at risk. Prior to its ongoing civil war, Syria had been polio-free for fourteen years but the country’s immunisation rates have plummeted from more than 95 per cent of eligible children before the conflict to around 52 per cent at the time of the polio outbreak.[2] Tellingly, the majority of the children affected were born after the vaccination programme fell apart.

(In)security and Bio-Threats

The global, long-term impact of what appears to be a lost opportunity to rid the world of this crippling disease is just as devastating as any deliberate act of bioterrorism.

The challenging security environment that has facilitated its spread should sound alarm bells for the future. Genetic sequencing has linked the strain of polio responsible for the October 2013 outbreak in the Deir Al-Zour province in eastern Syria to one of Pakistani origin that has also been found in Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories in recent months. The speculation is that Pakistani fighters battling the Assad regime, or Syrian military personnel who have undergone training in Pakistan, may have inadvertently brought the virus to Syria with them.

Two-thirds of the 400 or so polio cases recorded globally in 2013 were caused by strains imported to the affected country from elsewhere, again largely from Pakistan – while ninety-two actually occurred in Pakistan.[3]. Sixty-nine per cent of these were concentrated in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA),[4] where the Taliban is particularly active, while Peshawar – the main city that is a way station for people transiting to Afghanistan – is the largest polio reservoir in the world.

Islamist Resistance to Vaccination

The apparent link between polio and Islamist activity is no coincidence: efforts to eradicate the disease in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria – the only three countries where the disease remains endemic, with ‘wild’ or naturally occurring strains still circulating – have long been challenged by Islamist militants who claim that the vaccinations are a Western plot to make their children infertile, to spread AIDS, or that health workers are undercover Western spies. The latter claim is not without substance: Dr Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani physician working for the CIA, famously obtained DNA from children in Abbottabad in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, under the cover of a fake immunisation campaign. Such suspicion can have a devastating impact: twenty-seven polio workers have been assassinated in Pakistan since December 2012.[5] Nonetheless, as long as the virus remains endemic in Pakistan, jihadist fighters will be able to inadvertently carry it to other areas of instability across the globe.

This problem is not exclusive to Pakistan. In May 2013, cases of the disease were recorded in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu for the first time since 2007, caused by strains imported from northern Nigeria, where imams and local political leaders issued a polio-vaccination boycott in 2003. In February 2013, the Islamist group Boko Haram murdered nine young women working on polio-vaccination programmes. Meanwhile, the spread of the disease across Somalia itself has been further helped by Al-Qa’ida-affiliated Al-Shabaab extremists discouraging parents from vaccinating their children by claiming that the vaccines contain AIDS.

A Polio-Free World?

How the world reacts to this global public-health emergency in the coming months – particularly over the summer, which heralds what is traditionally the high-transmission season for polio – will determine whether we can realistically continue to aim for a world that is polio-free.

Co-ordinating international efforts to support vaccination programmes in failed and fragile states is one response. Another measure – that has now been implemented by WHO – is to limit international travel from affected regions by those who cannot prove they have been vaccinated.  This is an approach that has also been replicated within countries. For example, Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif has stipulated that no unvaccinated child from FATA be allowed to enter the settled areas of Pakistan. He has also ordered army protection for polio vaccinators going into volatile regions of the country.

Other more creative measures should also be considered. The Organization of the Islamic Conference has issued fatwas in support of polio vaccination, and Pakistan has encouraged senior imams to speak out on the topic. On 16 May, the White House issued a statement that the CIA will no longer make operational use of vaccination workers.

But beyond these, there needs to be greater awareness amongst the broader security community of how this niche problem can develop into a global threat – an ancillary product of instability and violence that can have deep, longer-term ramifications. Security issues and the success or failure of WHO’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative are clearly, if intricately, linked. As such, efforts to wipe out polio in its last few remaining strongholds must be approached with both in mind.

A new piece for an outlet I have not contributed to in a while, Jamestown’s Terrorism Monitor, this time looking at the brewing trouble there has been in Mombasa, Kenya and more generally the spread of Shabaab from Somalia into that country. The initial nub of this came from looking more at the cases of Germaine Grant and Samantha Lewthwaite, both significant British figures who have featured in this network. More broadly than them it is clear that the trends in Mombasa are going in a negative direction.

Beyond al Shabaab, Syria continues to be a major focus of people’s attention.  I have longer work coming on this, but in the meantime did interviews on the foreign fighter question with the Sunday Independent and Guardian as well as a more longer-term piece with BBC on the Return to Londonistan. You can also see me talking about foreign fighters and the link to Europe at Chatham House.

Terrorist Campaign Strikes Mombasa as Somali Conflict Spreads South

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 8

April 18, 2014 08:04 PM Age: 4 hrs
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Kenyan authorities in the coastal city of Mombasa arrested two individuals on March 17 as they drove a vehicle laden with explosives into the city. Authorities believed that the two men were part of a larger cell of 11 who were planning a campaign of terror that would have culminated in the deployment of a “massive” VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) against “shopping malls, beaches or tourist hotels” (Capital FM [Nairobi], March 17; Standard [Nairobi], March 17; March 20). A day later, Ugandan authorities announced they had heightened their security in response to a threat from al-Shabaab aimed at fuel plants in the country (Africa Report, March 19).

The VBIED was built into the car, with ball bearings and other shrapnel welded into its sides and a mobile phone detonator wired to the device (Standard [Nairobi], March 20). The men were also caught with an AK-47, 270 rounds of ammunition, six grenades and five detonators (Capital FM [Nairobi], March 18). The suspects, Abdiaziz Abdillahi Abdi and Isaak Noor Ibrahim, were both born in 1988, with Abdiaziz allegedly “a cattle trader and renowned navigator of old caravan trade routes based in Garissa town,” while Noor was described as “a long distance truck driver or conductor who often travelled to South Sudan through Uganda” (Standard [Nairobi], March 23). Their ethnicity was unclear with conflicting reports in the press, though the names suggest a Somali heritage, with Abdiaziz in particular being identified as a member of the Degodia, a sub-clan of the Hawiye of Somalia (Standard [Nairobi], March 23).

Later leaked reports indicated that another possible target was the Mombasa International Airport (Standard [Nairobi], March 23). On January 16, a bomb went off at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. Initially dismissed as a light bulb blowing up, authorities later admitted an IED had caused the explosion in a bin in the airport and reported capturing a car with further explosives onboard after a shootout near the airport. One man was killed in the gunfire and four others were subsequently charged in connection to the plot. One of those charged, Ilyas Yusuf Warsame, was identified by his lawyers as being accredited as a third secretary at the Somali Embassy in Nairobi (AP, February 4).

Authorities claimed to have been tracking a larger cell of individuals targeting Mombasa for around a month prior to the arrests with international assistance. One senior intelligence officer told the Kenyan press that five of the group had gone to Nairobi and the rest to Mombasa. The group allegedly included “foreign fighters” described as members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) by the Kenyan press (Standard [Nairobi], March 23). Official accounts around the plot were somewhat undermined by a report that Kenyan police had initially kept the VBIED parked outside their headquarters after seizing the vehicle without realizing it had a live device wired up within it (Daily Telegraph [London], March 19).

There is little independent corroboration of the international connection to the plot, though one name to appear repeatedly in the press was Fuad Abubakar Manswab, a Nairobi-born man connected by authorities to a number of plots in the past. Most notably, Manswab was arrested and charged alongside Briton Germaine Grant in Mombasa in December 2011. The two were accused of being involved in a bombing campaign in the city that was directed by Ikrima al-Muhajir, a Somalia-based al-Shabaab leader with close ties to al-Qaeda (for Ikrima, see Militant Leadership Monitor, November 2013). Manswab jumped bail in that case and a year later was almost killed in a shootout with Kenyan authorities in the Majengo neighborhood of Mombasa. Two others were killed in the confrontation with authorities and a cache of weapons uncovered, though Manswab managed to escape by jumping out a window with bullet wounds in his shoulder (Star [Nairobi], June 12, 2013). The group was alleged by prosecutors to have been plotting to free other al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab prisoners being held in Mombasa, as well as launching a series of assassinations of security officials and grenade attacks on bars (Daily Nation [Nairobi], October 30, 2012). Manswab was later reported to have joined al-Shabaab in Somalia (Star [Nairobi], June 12, 2013).

This targeting of Mombasa comes as a popular radical preacher was mysteriously gunned down in the street. Shaykh Abubakar Shariff Ahmed (a.k.a. Makaburi) was gunned down alongside another man as he left a courtroom within the Shimo la Tewa maximum security prison (Daily Nation [Nairobi], April 1). Long reported by official and media sources to be close to al-Shabaab, Makaburi was on U.S. and UN sanctions lists for his connections via funding and support to terrorist networks in East Africa. [1] He had also been connected to the transit of over 100 British nationals to join al-Shabaab, including the elusive Samantha Lewthwaite and Germaine Grant (Daily Mail, April 2). Close to slain radical clerics Shaykh Aboud Rogo and Shaykh Ibrahim Ismael, Makaburi was the leader of the radical Masjid Shuhada (Martyrs Mosque), previously known as the Masjid Musa. Similar to events in the wake of the deaths of the other two clerics, rioting broke out in Mombasa, though local authorities repeatedly called for calm and the violence was markedly less than in the wake of the deaths of the other clerics (Kenyan Broadcasting Corporation, April 2).

Following Makaburi’s death, another controversial cleric known as Shaykh Amir (a.k.a.  Mahboob) took control of the mosque and called for “total war against non-Muslims” to a packed house (The People [Nairobi], April 8). Sectarian violence was already visible in Mombasa prior to Makaburi’s death, when gunmen tied to the Masjid Shuhada by the Kenyan press were accused of opening fire on a mass in the Joy in Jesus church in the Likoni district, killing seven (Star[Nairobi], March 23).  The attackers attempted to go on to target another local church, but dropped the necessary ammunition before they got there (Daily Nation [Nairobi], March 23). The attack on the church was believed to be a reaction to a police raid on the Masjid Musa in early February in which two youths from the mosque and a policeman were killed. Among the 129 people arrested in the raid, police claimed to have arrested an individual alleged to be close to the late al-Qaeda in East Africa leader, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed. (Daily Nation [Nairobi] February 4).

At present, tensions remain high in the city and the government seemed to have responded to the recent spike in trouble with mass arrests and the threatened deportation of foreign nationals. A day prior to Makaburi’s shooting, some 657 people were arrested in sweeps in Eastleigh, a mostly Somali neighborhood in Nairobi, as part of the government’s response to grenade attacks on restaurants in the city that killed six (Daily Nation [Nairobi], April 1). A week after Makaburi’s death, some 4,000 Somalis were reportedly being held in Nairobi’s Kasarani stadium as authorities sifted through who was a Kenyan and who was not (Standard, [Nairobi], April 8). Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku stated that 3,000 had been detained, with 82 deported to Mogadishu (AFP, April 10). On April 12-13, Mombasa police rounded up 60 foreign suspects as part of an ongoing operation (KTN TV [Nairobi], April 13).

This focus on foreigners, however, may be a distraction from the larger problem of radicalization in Kenya, epitomized by the goings on around the mosques in Mombasa where there is evidence of connections to Somalia through Somali youth attending the mosque and connections through preachers like Makaburi, but it is not as clear that it is a solely foreign problem. The connection between the mosque and the community around it in Mombasa and foreign elements (including a trio of Algerian, Belgian and French nationals deported to Belgium on charges of being part of a Belgian-based network sending people to fight in Syria and Somalia) and reports of possible plotting in Uganda all highlight how these problems in Mombasa could have an international dimension (AFP, March 23; Africa Report, March 19).

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of the forthcoming We Love Death as You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen (Hurst/Columbia University Press).

Note

1. www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg1630.aspx; https://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2012/sc10748.doc.htm.

A quiet period during the holidays as I try to catch up some longer writing projects I have due. In the meantime, I have a new book review in my institutional home’s journal, the RUSI Journal, this one of Jeremy Shapiro’s interesting new book The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations which focuses on bureaucracy in terrorist networks. It comes just as AP publishes a whole series of documents online found in Mali detailing al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s internal corporate structure – very much illustrating many of Shapiro’s points. The review can be found here.

I also realize I never published links to other book reviews I have done for the RUSI Journal. Earlier in the year, I did one about Stig Jarle Hansen’s book Al Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, 2005-2012That review can be found here. A very detailed book, which seems to be first of two he did for Hurst.

And finally, I did a review essay of China going out looking at China’s Silent Army: The Pioneers, Traders, Fixers and Workers who are remaking the world in Beijing’s image and The Chinese Question in Central Asia: Domestic Order, Social Change, and the Chinese Factor. Two very different co-authored books – one more journalistic than the other (China’s Silent Army), but both interesting in different ways. The review essay can be found here.

Given they are all paywalled, I cannot simply post them here, but if you get in touch I can try to help.

I have gone quiet for a while due to various travelling and other commitments. Written a few longer things which will eventually land, but for the time being here is my latest piece with Sayyid on al Shabaab’s internal difficulties for Jamestown.

Foreign Fighters in Somalia and al-Shabaab’s Internal Purge

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 22
December 3, 2013 11:21 AM Age: 8 hrs

Al-Shabaab (Source AFP)

The role of foreign fighters in al-Shabaab was brought to public attention once again in October with the release by al-Kata’ib (Shabaab’s media wing) of a video entitled: “It’s an eye for an eye: the Woolwich attacks.” [1] The video featured ten British jihadis who had died fighting alongside al-Shabaab as well as one Somali-Norwegian shown carrying out the massacre at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall. The video appeared to confirm the prominent role of foreigners inside the East African terrorist networks (Telegraph, October 25; BBC, October 18). The reality, however, is more complicated, with evidence indicating that the size of the foreign fighter contingent in East Africa has been in flux, with a number dying in a complicated internal struggle from which Ahmad Abdi Godane (a.k.a. Abu Zubayr) has emerged victorious.

The most prominent casualty amongst this foreign fighter contingent was Omar Hammami, the American who rose within al-Shabaab to become its unofficial poster-boy. Increasingly angered by what he saw as the “authoritarian” approach adopted by Godane, he lashed out through videos and on his Twitter account, claiming he was under threat from the Shabaab leadership. Hammami survived one attempt on his life before succumbing to an assassin’s bullet on September 12. Dying alongside him was Osama al-Britani, a British-Pakistani national believed to be Habib Ghani, a long-standing British fighter in the region who was closely linked to the semi-mythical “white widow” Samantha Lewthwaite, widow of one of the July 7, 2005 bombers of London’s underground system (Daily Mail, September 13).

The deaths of the two men came as the capstone of a series of foreign fighter deaths under mysterious circumstances. One of the first to fall was Bilal al-Berjawi, a British-Lebanese sub-commander within the group who was killed by a drone strike in January 22, 2012. A month later his companion Muhammad Sakr was also killed under similar circumstances. While the direct cause of death was clear, the circumstances that enabled the drones to find these individuals were not.

In an apparent attempt to clarify these circumstances, al-Kata’ib made the unusual step of releasing a video which purported to be a confession by a young Somali who claimed to have helped direct the drone strikes against Bilal al-Berjawi and Muhammad Sakr. The confessional video seemed aimed at emphasizing that the two men had died as the result of offensive operations by the group’s enemies rather than executed by the group itself, suggesting there was some doubt that this was the case. [2]

Evidence of an internal dispute over the targeting of foreign fighters was found in other areas. For example, in the wake of al-Berjawi’s death, there was a reported exodus of foreigners from Somalia. In late April 2013, senior leaders within the organization published a fatwa (legal pronouncement in Islam) specifically ordering that Omar Hammami, Osama al-Britani and Egyptian Khatab al-Masri not be targeted for assassination. [3] In mid-2010 there was still strong evidence that Westerners, from the UK at least, were providing a fairly steady stream of young warriors to join the Somali group, but the indicators over time have been negative. With the rise of jihad operations in Syria and other Arab Spring countries, young Westerners no longer saw the appeal of joining Godane’s increasingly xenophobic jihad.

For its part, al-Shabaab appears more eager to reach out to the foreign community than before. The video “Woolwich Attack: It’s an Eye for an Eye” came in the wake of a YouTube video published by the group that described the journey of a group from Minneapolis who left the United States to join al-Shabaab (the video has since been removed from the Internet). The video eulogized the fallen Westerners in a manner that seemed aimed at recruiting people to come to Somalia and to illustrate how the fight that al-Shabaab was undertaking was part of a larger conflict directed by core al-Qaeda.

Close examination of the videos and the records of the fallen men illustrates that these cases are, for the most part, historical rather than current. The Minneapolis group moved from the United States to Somalia in a series of waves dating back to 2007. The known British fighters mentioned all seem to have travelled to the conflict before 2010. In some cases, court documents identify individuals who fought alongside al-Shabaab and then returned home. In others, networks back in the UK that were providing support and funding for fighters were disrupted, yielding information on when individuals left and how long they required financial support. [4] Some of those provided with support through these networks are now reported dead. One man, identified as “CF” in court documents, first tried to travel to Afghanistan to fight, but was dissuaded by the difficulties encountered in entering that country and instead settled for Somalia. [5]

Having said all of this, there is still some evidence that Godane retains the loyalty and support of some of his foreign cadres. Part of this is evidenced through various media outlets, like the pro-Godane Twitter feed @MYC_Press, which is widely speculated to be run by Samantha Lewthwaite. Whether run by Lewthwaite or not, the account is clearly written by someone whose mother tongue is colloquial British English. Similarly, all of the videos mentioned in this piece are narrated by Abu Omar, an English-speaking Shabaab fighter who has a very clear grasp of the languages and culture of the West, most likely indicating strong foreign links. In terms of the Westgate incident, the growing evidence of a strong link to Somali diaspora elements from Norway suggests the group is still able to call upon its foreign links to conduct audacious operations.

However, the dilemma remains about what role foreign fighters will have in the new organization being crafted by Godane. In April 2013, an open letter to al-Qaeda leader Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri was released by Ibrahim al-Afghani (a.k.a. Abu Bakr al-Zaylai), in which al-Afghani called for the al-Qaeda leader to step into an increasingly fractious battle within al-Shabaab that was threatening to tear the organization apart. At the heart of the division was a split between the local and international fighters, with the two groups divided over al-Shabaab’s direction (African Review [Nairobi], April 9, 2013). Interestingly, it seemed as though the foreign contingent was focused on consolidating power within Somalia, while the faction led by Godane was more interested in expanding al-Shabaab’s international reach, possibly to live up to its role as an al-Qaeda affiliate.

It is possibly within this split that we see the seeds of the Westgate incident as well as an explanation of the future role Godane sees for the foreign fighters in his group. While the Westgate plot clearly used assets within Kenya and is therefore in part a product of domestic radicalization issues inside Kenya, it was nevertheless directed and claimed by Godane’s al-Shabaab network. The intent was to mount a large-scale incident to attract international attention alongside other major international jihadist attacks, such as this year’s In Aménas attack, the 2008 Mumbai attack and other large-scale terrorist operations in which mass casualties have been ascribed to al-Qaeda or its affiliates.

At the same time, the group’s latest video release pointed to an eagerness to place the Somali cause within a larger ideological arc (highlighting the causes of the Uyghur and Rohignya as examples where the West was proving it did not care about Muslims) and also called upon individuals to conduct terrorist plots in the West. Al-Shabaab has previously refrained from calling openly for such terrorist operations. Delivered clearly and coherently in English, the rhetorical shift is something clearly aimed at a Western audience.

The danger for Western security officials is that the group has finally made the long-awaited strategic decision to focus efforts outside of Somalia. At the same time, the decision to make this shift seems to come at a moment when the group is having less success in attracting Western fighters to its ranks, thus depriving them of the most effective tool to launch an attack in the heart of the West. With Syria currently dominating jihadists’ attention, this dynamic is unlikely to change substantially in the near future. In the longer-term, Godane’s clear interest in living up to his group’s al-Qaeda affiliation would suggest more incidents aimed at Western targets in Africa at least are likely.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of the forthcoming We Love Death as You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen (Hurst/Columbia University Press).

A.R. Sayyid is the editor of The Somali War Monitor Blog www.somaliwarmonitor.wordpress.com. 

Notes

1. The video confession was posted in May 2013 and is available:ia600707.us.archive.org/22/items/3d-f7dhrhm-2/SoBeware2_HQ.m4v.

2. See www.aljahad.com/vb/showthread.php.

3. Regina vs Mohammed Shabir Ali and Mohammed Shakif Ali, Central Criminal Court, August 1, 2012.

4. Secretary of State for the Home Department vs CC and CF, Royal Courts of Justice, October 19, 2012, [2012] EWHC 2837.

My contribution about the Westgate attack for my home institution RUSI. Tries to put the incident within the bigger context of trends we are seeing within al Qaeda and terrorism internationally. I did quite a bit of media around the Nairobi attack, a lot of questions about the mythical ‘White Widow’ Samantha Lewthwaite: the New York Times, ABC, NBCNew Statesman, Guardian, Daily Beast, Sky News, BBC, Times, as well as others I cannot find and a video for RUSI.

The Westgate Nairobi Attack: A Sign of the Diversified Threat from Al-Qa’ida

RUSI Analysis, 4 Oct 2013

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow, Counter-Terrorism

The locus of countering Al-Qa’ida style terrorism has now shifted overseas, with Western governments facing a new and complex set of issues that have been brought into particular focus by recent events at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
Westgate Terror attacks Kenya Nairobi

Al-Shabaab’s audacious attack in central Nairobi came in the wake of Al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s latest message entitled ‘General Guidelines for Jihad.’ His communication laid out an attack plan for his global movement which focused on two main themes: the growing geographical diversity of the struggle that he is trying to lead and the need to be more careful in targeting. Neither is a particularly new. But the message seems all the more salient following a year that so far has seen large-scale operations at In Amenas in Algeria, a scare against Western targets in Yemen, a brutal massacre at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, and all alongside a constant patter of death in Syria, Iraq and Pakistan

The threat from international terrorism is one that has become more diverse and complicated, posing Western security officials with a growing array of risks and dangers across a wider geographical space. Complicated terrorist plots no longer solely emanate from Pakistan’s badlands targeting Europe or the United States.

Regional Al-Qa’ida affiliates instead seek Western targets near their home bases, focusing on the subsequent media attention. Places such as In Amenas, Western Embassies in Yemen or the Westgate Mall in Nairobi are the future of terrorism. For Western security officials, the problem is to develop strategies to protect, prepare and prevent terrorist attacks that are targeting nationals and interests abroad.  They will have to deal with a complicated basket of issues that will require developing local capacity and ability, as well as improving regional and international coordination, in particular within the European Union. The locus of countering terrorism has now shifted overseas and developing capacity to address this new and complicated threat will be the focus for the medium term future.

Al Qa’ida Diversifying

As is his wont, Zawahiri talked at length about the confrontation with the ‘far enemy’ the United States, but also focused in some detail on the numerous live jihadi battlefields where his group has some connection. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Algeria, the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia, Syria and ‘the environs of Jerusalem’ – an interesting allusion to one of the most active Sinai based groups that has been responsible for the attack on the Egyptian Interior Minister in Cairo on 5 September 2013. He also voiced sympathy for ‘brothers’ in Kashmir, Xinjiang, the Philippines and Burma, where al-Zawahiri sees potential supporters, but no specific allied groups and so restricts himself to simply calling for support for these people in their struggle against their oppressors.

The signal is that Al-Qa’ida is diversifying its branches and regions of influence. Since the Arab Spring, Al-Qa’ida core has found itself preoccupied less on the West and more on the Muslim world, where there seems to be more room for rallying support and potential inflection points for social change. Whether this is a sign of the movement’s weakness in the West, or an inability of the centre to control its branches, the strengthened development of its networks and ideas in an increasingly diverse geographical space presents a clear and present danger to Western interests in the regions.

From being a relatively monolithic beast, Al-Qa’ida has evolved into a complicated beast with branches, affiliates and sympathisers around the globe. From a counter-terrorism perspective, this presents a more dangerous creation in many ways, though one that seems to have less ability to reach directly into Western capitals except through the tool of uncontrolled ‘lone actor’ terrorists. The threat to Western capitals continues to exist in Al-Qa’ida rhetoric and aspiration, but in practice they find it easier to hit targets full of Westerners closer to home.

Al-Zawahiri’s missive also emphasised the need for caution in the Jihadi struggle, reflecting a broader ongoing internal debate within Al-Qa’ida. Ever since the debacle of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s brutality in Iraq and the public backlash this led to in the mid-2000s, al-Zawahiri has sought to rein in more savage acts. This particular aspect was seen on display in both the In Amenas and Westgate attacks where the groups made efforts to avoid killing Muslims. These may have been more demonstrative than practical (and Muslims perished in both incidents), but at the same time, some effort was made and this was publicised, with the affiliates responsible for those attacks keen on overtly implying that they seem to have learned some lessons from others experiences.

Drawing on lessons learned during the grim struggle in Algeria during the 1990s, al-Zawahiri realises that in order to be an effective vanguard you need to have a potential pool of support behind you. A message he further hammered home in his emphasis on the importance of educating and creating awareness within the masses, and of conducting ‘dawa’ (preaching) and spreading their message throughout Muslim lands and beyond. He emphasises a basic principle: ‘to avoid entering in any conflict with them [so-called proxies of America], except in countries where confronting them becomes inevitable.’

The New Locus of Threat

It is within this context that Western counter-terrorism officials will see recent events in Nairobi and what this means for the threat from international terrorism. No longer are Al-Qa’ida or its affiliates targeting the West, but rather they are pursuing Western interests in their near neighbourhoods.

The centre of gravity as fragmented away from the West itself. Regional groups like al-Shabaab, Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula or Boko Haram now seek to attack Western interests in their immediate surrounding.  Hence, the choice of attacking a Western company site in Algeria, the Westgate Mall, Western embassies or kidnapping individuals in the broader Sahel. In all of these instances, Westerners were part of the thinking in target choice, but the action was carried out abroad. It remains attractive to attack Westerners given the international focus and attention that it brings and westerners can increasingly be found in almost every corner of the globe. It is worth highlighting that these target choices are not that new, but increasingly they seem the focus.

The dilemma is two-fold: how far can Western security forces push the boundaries of the security umbrella under which nationals can operate? And on the assumption that it cannot extend universally, what can be done to either strengthen locals to respond to the threat or to work with locals to eradicate the underlying problems that provide a fertile ground for extremist ideas to grow. In other words, how do we develop and successfully implement counter-terrorism strategies across the board far from national borders?

At one level, the response to this can be found by forging stronger local relationships between relevant security officials. This needs to be through training in response, but also in the preventative aspect of counter-terrorism. Fostering a culture of observance to questions of justice and human rights can be just as important as strengthening technical capability to respond to an incident. Furthermore, encouraging greater cooperation at an international level with European or other international partners to coordinate local efforts, while at the same time fostering regional cooperation (for example through AMISOM in Somalia or the African Union effort in Mali) are all going to be key in controlling the threat.

Learning Lessons?

Perhaps Al-Zawahiri’s approach in diversifying Al-Qa’ida’s efforts to vulnerable geographies and proceeding cautiously and with due regard for local issues should be mirrored by the West.  The complexity of Islamist extremist networks and their ability to draw on local issues to strengthen their narrative makes them difficult to understand and counter. The circumstances under which they manage to thrive are different. A one-size-fits-all approach to countering them is headed for failure.

At the same time, international cooperation to counter the development of these terrorist networks overseas requires caution as it is linked to issues of sovereignty, human rights and local legitimacy, to name a few. Unintended consequences such as the strengthening of resentment against the West is a constant concern, as many counter-terrorism efforts are still deemed to be a form of imperialism rather than a genuine effort to improving human and community security and justice.

In that sense, a partnership with legitimate local actors is a requirement for success, but identifying the correct ones and finding effective ways to working with them presents difficulties for policymakers. An additional layer of complexity is that assessing ‘illegitimate’ local actors and their intent is also problematic: the number of worldwide groups and individuals affiliated with or potentially influenced by Al-Qa’ida is vast. Some may be more proximate to thresholds of legitimacy than others.  New movements and mergers within Syria as well as so-called lone wolves who might emerge present a further challenge.

How an adequate response to the transnational influence of this group can be formulated is an on-going debate. The trend towards transnationalism, ‘globalised’ local partnerships and disaggregation is something that al-Zawahiri has recognised and is eager to harness. It remains uncertain that he has been successful in this.  But in countering this strategy, tackling the feeling of local anger that the Al-Qa’ida’s narrative continues to be able to tap into remains a challenge for more nuanced and sophisticated counter-radicalisation and counter-extremism work.  Managing this work across broad geographies presents as complex a management challenge as al-Zawahiri faces.

Twelve years after Al-Qa’ida’s keynote attack on the West, the organisation continues to survive and, in some battlefields, thrive. Attacks like the incident in Nairobi highlight that often it is not the core that is the biggest threat, but the regional affiliates that might be discounted as simply local problems. No longer the monolith it once was, it has latched on to local narratives and anger on a global scale, initiating bottom up dynamics that are far beyond Al-Qa’ida core’s ability to control or even influence.  Al-Zawahiri’s message is a call for coherence. Coherence coupled with caution may also be what’s needed at the core of policymakers’ and practitioners’ approach to countering the Islamist extremist threat across the globe.